March 13, 2003
Remember the Good
One of the most precious moments parents and children share with each other is the quiet and routine of bedtime. I hope you sleep well at night, but, as we all know, sometimes it is difficult to fall asleep, or to have a restful sleep. There are too many things on our minds. We're filled with excitement and anticipation. Or we aren't feeling all that good. Things are happening in other places that concern us or disturb us.
King Ahashuerus had such a night in the Purim story. We read in Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, that one night following the first feast that Queen Esther had for King Ahashuerus and Haman, "sleep deserted the king, and he ordered the book of records, the annals to be brought; and it was read to the king."
We're all familiar with the story: The king discovers that Esther's uncle, Mordecai, has not been rewarded for saving Ahashuerus' life. He orders that this honor is to be carried out by Haman, and things begin to change for the Jews of Shushan.
Jewish tradition sees something more taking place in this scene. Judaism's moral imagination describes that King Ahashuerus was not able to sleep because of all that was going on around him: Esther was involved with planning and preparing her next feast; Haman was busy building gallows; Mordecai was upset, praying and wearing sackcloth. The midrash even states that this was the very same night, in an earlier generation, during which the Children of Israel remained on guard, watching for the angel of death to pass over their homes as they anticipated their exodus from Egypt.
How can anyone sleep, our tradition seems to wonder, when people are in peril? How can we find rest while others are weary, nervous or even awaiting their redemption? For you and me it seems so easy. We crawl into bed, turn off the news and it's quiet all around us. Or at least it seems that way. Do we really turn off our consciences so easily? Do we actually stop being aware of everything we will awaken to the next morning?
I don't think so. Even King Ahashuerus seemed to understand that he needed to find a way to respond or he wouldn't calm himself nor find any rest on that fateful night. According to our tradition, the thing that most disturbed Ahashuerus was whether or not someone had "asah li tovah" ( done something good for me), which he had not properly acknowledged.
What a beautiful way to end a day! Did I fail to recognize any goodness today? Is there something I can do about it now or tomorrow? The difficult, the troubling, all that disturbs does startle us from our sleep. That's human nature. But what of goodness, of caring, of all that reflects our ideals - -- how do we remember all of that?
This Shabbat is called "Shabbat Zachor" (the Sabbath of Remembrance). We read about Amalek, Haman's ancestor whose evil attack against the Children of Israel is recalled by the Torah to inspire us toward goodness and resolve.
King Ahashuerus isn't the only one with a record book. Earlier in the Torah, Moses is told to write down as a lasting memory all that Amalek did to Israel. As he does so, the Israelites quarrel among themselves as they complain for water and sustenance.
"Is the Eternal present among us or not?" they ask.
The next verse then states: "Amalek came forward and fought with Israel."
It was the weakness of the people's own spirit, their inability to appreciate all that had brought them to this very moment of redemption and opportunity that presented Amalek with the opportunity to attack. They were separated from the truths and lessons of their own experience, of the presence of God in their own story. Whom did Amalek reach? The "stragglers" -- those who were weak of heart and spirit, not physical strength, the midrash suggests. Those people who knew how to complain but could not appreciate the miracle and reality of their lives.
Remember King Ahashuerus' sleepless night? We learned that he was disturbed because something good might have been done for him to which he had not properly responded.
As a father, this is what I want for my children. When I say "good night" at the end of a day, of course I want them to sleep comfortably and undisturbed. But I also want them to focus on remembering the good, the decent and the beautiful of their day.
Zachor. We must all remember to tell this to our children and our grandchildren. It is not enough to recall what Amalek did, as Moses was commanded. Like Ahashuerus , we must also recognize the good that Mordecai did and the meaning that every new day promises us all.
Shabbat Shalom! Happy Purim!
This weekend, Rabbi Ron Shulman celebrates his 20th anniversary with Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.